Sunday, November 29, 2009


I have spent my entire career in urban schools. I love teaching urban kids about 95% of the year. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, however, are absolutely heartbreaking. My urban kids watch as much television and see as many commercials as their more affluent peers. Their families don't have the resources, though, to provide the expensive toys and name brand clothes and shoes that they want. The little kids are sure that Santa will bring them. The older kids know Santa won't come, but they still hope for miracles. The financial stress present in most families during this time, is even greater in urban settings. And as a teacher, even a teacher who is not particularly materialistic, I still wish that every child could wake up Christmas morning to a tree of presents and more importantly, a houseful of love.

THOSE SHOES is the first book I will read to kids during the holiday season. Jeremy desperately wants the high top, two stripe tennis shoes that all of his friends are wearing. His grandmother, however, is clear on the difference between needs and wants. Jeremy needs new winter boots, he doesn't need new high top, two stripe tennis shoes. When his tennis shoes fall apart, he has to go to the social worker's office, and select a pair of babyish, cartoon character tennis shoes that are nothing like the two stripe high tops he was hoping for. Later, he finds the longed for shoes at a thrift shop; he buys them, but they are too small, and they give him blisters. He finally gives his special high top two stripe shoes to another little boy that needs them.

I can't change my kids' lives. I don't have the money to give them the things they want or even sometimes the things they need. I can't fix their lives- the deep hurt of absent parents, or substance abuse, or homelessness. I can, however, give them places to talk and make sense of their lives. I can help them understand that family is the people that love you and care about you, and whether that comes from actual parents, grandparents, or coaches, or teachers, or the school lunch lady, it still counts. I can help them to understand that as little as they have, they can still give to others. And for those reasons, THOSE SHOES is the book I will read aloud tomorrow…

Saturday, November 28, 2009


The year is 1903. The car, or at least the car as we know it, has been in existence for about ten years, and there are only 150 miles of paved roads in the entire United States. Horatio Jackson, a wealthy doctor from Vermont who is vacationing in San Francisco, takes a bet that no one can drive a horseless buggy cross country from California to New York.

Four days later, Jackson and a mechanic, Sewall Crocker, set out on their cross country adventure. A few weeks later, they are joined by Bud, a bull dog, who makes the trip perched in the front seat, wearing driving goggles. The trio plows through various obstacles- the rocky ledges of the California Sierras, the sand of the Oregon desert, a storm of grasshoppers in Omaha, rain and more rain, mud, mud, and more mud, not to mention endless flat tires. Eight thousand dollars 5600 miles, and 63 days later, they arrive in New York City.

A fun, light-hearted story with cartoon-like illustrations that I know kids are absolutely going to love.

Friday, November 27, 2009


From the time I was very young, I loved , loved, loved horses. Despite the fact that we lived right smack in the middle of the city, I wanted a horse more than anything. I took horseback riding lessons on the old tired trail animals at Mark Reyner's riding stable, collected horses and horse memorabilia, and read every horse book I could get my hands on. Two of my absolute favorites were MISTY OF CHINCOTEAGUE and STORMY, MISTY'S FOAL by Marguerite Henry.

This week, reading through the stack of CYBILS nominees, I came across PONY ISLAND by Candice F. Ransom. PONY ISLAND tells the stories of the Chincoteague ponies in verse. Listen to a couple of pages:
Big ship wrecks.
Stormy sea.
Cargo horses.
Swimming free
Swim the channel,
Noses high.
Ponies dripping.
Crowds stand by.
Morning sunrise
By the sea
Ponies gallop
Wild and free.

According to an author's note, the ponies actually live on the island of Assateague. There are various stories about how they got there- some believe they were castaways from a Spanish shipwreck, others think farmers moved them there to avoid paying taxes. However the ponies came to the island, they have been there a long, long time. Since 1925, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department has a pony roundup once a year. They swim the ponies across the channel from Assateague to Chincoteague. The pony auction and carnival raise money for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. Each year, more than 75,000 people flock to the island to watch the ponies make their five minute swim. After the event is over, the ponies return to Assateague, where they run wild for another year. (For the animal lovers in the crowd, the fire department feeds and cares for the ponies throughout the winter, and they are checked by a veterinarian several times throughout the year).

Ransom has done a terrific job capturing this historic event in rhyming poetry. Equally wonderful, however, are Wade Zaharas' beautiful illustrations. Bold, vivid oil paintings, with lots of interesting use of line and shadow. The end pages feature the island at dawn or dusk, and are pretty and quiet and peaceful. Other pages, like the page where the ship wrecks, or where the ponies run through the village, are bold and action packed. I think kids will want to go back and look again and again; I know I sure did.

POETRY FRIDAY is at Becky's Book Reviews.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Jim Burke posted this poem on the ENGLISH COMPANION NING this morning.Jane Kenyon is much more articulate than I am, so I'm borrowing it, with huge thanks to Jim (not sure why the whole poem can be posted, but I figure Jim is much savvier than I am on the ways of the internet, so I am posting the whole thing too).


by Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

from Otherwise, 1996
Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Review copy provided by publisher

My niece and nephew have always known me as the book auntie. Since they were born, I've deluged them with books for every Christmas, holiday, and birthday. Yeah, I give the stuff on their lists- the purses and legos and video games, but I also make sure there is a book (or two or three or ten) under the Christmas tree. My books were never the first presents Gregory or Megan opened or played with, but they always got used and loved eventually. And the books they usually lasted a whole lot longer than the other stuff I bought! Over the next few weeks, I'm going to feature a few books that would be perfect book auntie presents.

HORSES: ACTION FILES (Silver Dolphin Books) is a book for the horse lovers in your life. The book is not really just a book, it's actually a collection of all things horse. Opening the cool 3D cover (which makes me a little nauseous, but I think it's a function of old age!), the reader finds a 24 page fact file with sections on the anatomy of a horse, horse types, horse care, and fun and games with horses. There are lots of great photos and drawings, diagrams, fascinating facts, and suggestions for further research and activities. The publisher has a website that covers not only horses, but lots of other great nonfiction topics as well. There are suggestions for other books (fiction and nonfiction) and also movies. I can definitely see myself using this book in a classroom nonfiction study- it's well written, has interesting information, and it has lots of text features that kids need to know and be able to use.

I would have bought HORSES based on the fact file alone. This book contains lots of other goodies though, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention them. There are sixty horse stickers, scattered on pages throughout the book. There are 18 info cards, each showing a different breed of horse (kind of like baseball trading cards) and a special envelope to keep them in. There is a horse mask kids can assemble. There is a giant foldout poster. And there is a fiction selection, not quite novel length, but longer than a picture book.

More good news. If you know kids who love sharks, or Egypt, or gladiators, those are other topics currently available in this series. I'm hoping there will be lots more eventually.

My niece and nephew are 19 and 21. HORSES probably won't work for either of them, but it's definitely going under someone's tree…

Monday, November 23, 2009


Yesterday I reviewed FAITH, a terrific photo essay by The Global Children's Fund. I loved how the book emphasized the similarities, and not the differences in world religions. Certainly, one of those similarities is that we all pray, and more specifically, that we all pray for peace. In LET THERE BE PEACE, Jeremy Brooks has collected prayers of peace from all over the world. Here are a couple that I especially loved:

Goodness is stronger than evil,
Love is stronger than hate,
Light is stronger than darkness
victory is ours through him who loves us.
Father Desmond Tutu

Lead us from death to life,
from falsehood to truth,
from despair to hope,
from fear to trust,
Lead us from hate to love,
from war to peace,
Let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe--
peace, peace, peace.
Satish Kumar, a Jain Monk

The gentle, colorful illustrations of people from all over the world,
contribute to the peaceful feeling of this book.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

FAITH- Maya Agjmer, Magda Nakassis, Cynthia Pon

Are you familiar with the The Global Fund for Children? They are an organization dedicated to bettering the plight of children and youth around the world through providing grants to organizations working in those areas. They also strive to "promote global understanding through the use of film, photography, and children's books." I've enjoyed many of their books over the past ten years- GLOBAL BABIES is one of my favorite baby shower presents, I also love sharing TO BE A KID with students.

The Global Fund for Children has come out with a new book this year, and it's a stunner. FAITH is a photo essay that captures the essence of different religions around the world. Each two-page spread addresses a different tenet of faith, e.g. we pray, we chant and sing, we read our holy books, we listen to and learn from others, we cleanse ourselves, we visit holy places, we observe holidays in our homes or places of worship, we care for those around us. The text is usually only one sentence; it's the beautiful, beautiful photographs that proclaim, again and again, that though we are all very different, we are also very much alike. On one page, for instance, the text says, "We show our faiths through what we wear…" The photos show six different religions- four little Muslim girls from Turkey, wearing decorative head scarves, an Indonesian boy wearing a songket udeng (a ceremonial headdress), a Mennonite boy dressed in "plain clothes," a Buddhist girl with thanaka face paint, three beautiful Jain girls in ceremonial headdresses before a procession, and Sikh boy wearing a Patka. The authors have included every religion I can think of-- there are photographs of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Farsi, Native Americans, Hindus, Jains, and many others.

A map in the back shows the loctions of all of the countries in the book. There are also three or four pages of notes about the elements of faith, as well as an extensive, and very detailed glossary of words to know.

Thank you, Global Fund for Children, for helping us to understand that we are all much more alike than different!

Friday, November 20, 2009


I posted this found poem last year, but I really love it. Maybe I will make it an annual tradition.


May we be aware not of the things we lack,
but of all that we have.

May we feel not the absence of those we love,
but the presence of those who love us.

May we see not just the harshness of our world,
but the gentleness of its mystery.

May we know not the cold of despair,
but the warmth of hope rising.

May we speak not of our hurts and losses,
but of our healings and blessings.

May we be with each other not in the shadows of the past,
but in the light of the present.

May we bring to our table not judgment, resentment, or anger,
but acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness.

May we remember to feed our spirit by living out of thankfulness.


Thursday, November 19, 2009


OK, I admit it. I'm a sucker for a good dog story. Found a new one in my CYBILS nominee pile.

For twenty years, Tarra was a performing elephant. After many years of hard work, she was allowed to retire to a newly created elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. All of the other elephants who came to the sanctuary quickly found elephant friends, but not Tarra. Tarra was a loner until she met a yellow mutt named Bella. From that day on, Bella and Tarra were inseparable.

A really nice dog story, a story about friendship and loyalty, that I know kids are going to love…

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Deborah Hopkinson (SWEET CLARA AND THE FREEDOM QUILT, SKY BOYS) is one of my favorite picture book authors. Hopkinson knows how to take a story from history and tell it in a way that makes it interesting and accessible to kids. Her latest book, MATTHEW HENSON: CO-DISCOVERER OF THE NORTH POLE is certainly no exception.

Matthew Henson was born about the time the Civil War ended. As a young African American boy, he had big hopes for seeing the world, but not much hope of fulfilling them. Orphaned at 13, Henson somehow managed to convince the captain of a sailing ship to hire him as a cabin boy. The captain took fondly to young Matt and schooled him in the ways of the high seas. Five years later, the Captain died, and Matthew Henson ended up back on land, working in a store. That's where he met Admiral Peary.

Admiral Peary is a man many of us know as the discoverer of the North Pole. But did you know that he was actually not alone when he made this discovery? Peary was accompanied by none other than Matthew Henson. In fact, Henson was actually the one who bonded with the Inuit people, trained the sled dogs, and stood next to Peary at the Pole (after surviving a fall into the icy water a few days earlier). Amazingly, after they returned from their expedition, Henson worked as a parking lot attendant because that is the only job he could get.

I loved everything about this book- Hopkinson's powerful storytelling, Henson's journal entries, the end pages that include author's note and timeline, and Stephen Alcorn's oh so beautiful illustrations, done in hues of blues, and oranges, and golds. I will be using KEEP ON as the center of an African American history unit in January. Matthew Henson has a lot to teach my kids about dreams, and tenacity, and perserverance, and dignity. Some pretty important life lessons, I think!
P.S. In case you are wondering why I have not been blogging--Ten days ago, my computer had an unfortunate accident (laptop bag meets parking lot, parking lot 1, laptop 0) and I have been without internet at home since then.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Some people don't believe that children should be exposed to controversial figures. If you are one of those people, then JOHN BROWN is probably not a book for you. If you believe, however, that children need to understand that most people are neither entirely good nor entirely bad, that sometimes very good people make poor decisions, and that kids learn from talking about controversy, then JOHN BROWN is a book you will enjoy sharing with your upper elementary, or middle or high school students.

John Brown was an ardent Christian. He believed that blacks should not only be free, but that they should be EQUAL- toward that end, he was kicked out of his home church for giving African Americans his pew at the front of the church after they had been seated in the back. Brown began his abolitionist roots working on the underground railroad in Hudson, Ohio. After the United States passed the Kansas-Nebraska act, which said that those two states could vote on whether they would enter the Union as free or slave states, Brown fought tirelessly to ensure that Kansas would be free. In one well-known battle, John and his sons stormed the homes of five pro-slavery settlers who had been threatening his family and other abolitionists, took the men to a creek, and killed them.

John Brown is perhaps best known for his role at Harper's Ferry. Harper's Ferry, the home of a federal armory which housed more than one hundred thousand rifles, was viewed as a symbol of Southern power. Brown decided that he and a small band of abolitionsists would capture the armory and seize the rifles, then use them to battle the Southern slave owners. Although he was initially successful, he made several poor decisions during this battle, and was eventually captured and hanged as a traitor. Many dismiss Brown as a madman. Hendrix, however, believes that we must see Brown as a man with huge passion and convictions for the downtrodden.
"I will raise a stom in this country that will not be stayed so long as there is a slave on its soil."
I love when illustrations help kids understand a complex story, and John Hendrix's frontier style water colors (I'm not sure that is exactly how to describe them, but it's the best this non-artist can do) done on backgrounds of blues, tans, and golds, definitely do that. Most are bold, two-page spreads, that include a larger than life John Brown, but a few are also maps. Key quotes figure prominently in many of the illustrations. And if you enjoy reading author's blogs, John Hendrix has a great one- he includes photographs from a recent John Brown book tour, but also pages from his sketchbook.

I'll be sharing this book not only with our fourth and fifth graders, but also with some of my high school history teacher friends!

Friday, November 6, 2009


Poetry by Ntozake Shange
Paintings by Kadir Nelson

For POETRY FRIDAY today, I'm not sharing just a poem. Instead, I'm sharing a biography in a poem. Actually a civil rights biography in a poem. Today I'm sharing Ntozake Shange's beautiful poetry picture book, CORETTA SCOTT. Shange has taken just a few events from Coretta Scott's life, and shaped them into a beautiful poem. Listen to this page, when Coretta and her younger siblings are walking to school…

white school bus
left a
funnel of dust
on their faces

songs and birds of all colors
and rich soil
where slaves sought freedom
steadied them
in the face of danger
The illustrations in this book are by Kadir Nelson (WE ARE THE SHIP, HENRY'S FREEDOM BOX, HE'S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS) who is most definitely one of my all-time favorites. The illustrations in CORETTA SCOTT are his usual- rich details, vivid colors, so real the people almost seem to jump off the page.

If I was doing a unit on biography, or teaching students about Coretta Scott King, I would probably read a more traditional biography first (there is actually a brief biography in the back of this book), then share Shange's poem. Prior to reading CORETTA SCOTT, I'd ask kids to list important events from her life, then to listen for these as I read. The book is short, so I could read it two or three times to let kids soak in the beautiful language. If kids were writing biography, I might ask them to choose a few important events from the person's life, then write a poem, using CORETTA as a mentor text.

This is definitely a book to add to your poetry and/or biography collection…

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I have a few little quirks. Well, actually, if you asked my sons, I have more than a few. But a few for sure. And one of them is that I love knowing how things were invented or where they came from.

THE DAY-GLO BROTHERS: THE TRUE STORY OF BOB AND JOE SWITZER'S BRIGHT IDEAS AND BRAND NEW COLORS is a "where things came from" kind of a book. Bob Switzer dreamed of being a doctor until a work-related accident left him with headaches and double vision. His younger brother Joe wanted to be a magician. Instead, the two ended up inventing day-glo paint. This book chronicles their journey with all its stops and starts, and false tries, e.g. the time they used their mom's mixer and turned her angel food cake a pale fluorescent pink. It's an engaging story, but the book also has lots of potential life lessons about creativity, risk taking, mistake making, patience, and perseverance. Character education at its finest!

First-time illustrator Tom Persiani has done a terrific job with the artwork in DAY-GLO BROTHERS. According to the back of the book, he used the computer to create fifties-style characters and settings in various hues of blacks, grays, and whites. He then digitally colorized the pictures with various day-glo oranges, yellows, greens, and pinks. At first, these colors are really pale, and there is just a little bit of color on each page As the Spitzers refine their invention, the colors become brighter and brighter, and there is more color on each page. Really clever!

In the back of the book, Chris Barton explains where he got the idea for the book, and how he did his research. He also includes a page about how regular and daylight fluorescence work. And if you want a quick, simple, explanation of fluorescence vs. day-glo fluorescence, check out this Charlesbridge site.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


As I said yesterday, I love books about brave, strong women. I love putting those books in front of kids, love saying look, this person made it and you will too. Well here's another book to add to the brave, strong women basket.

ELEANOR: QUIET NO MORE traces the life of Eleanor Roosevelt through a wealthy but very lonely childhood, overseas travels, meeting and marrying FDR, dealing with a domineering mother-in-law, managing a new kind of life after FDR was stricken with polio, advocating for the downtrodden, and finally living the life of First Lady.

I love the layout of this picture book. Each two-page spread includes a picture and two or three paragraphs about a particular section of Roosevelt's life. It also includes, in a very large font, a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt. Here are a couple of my favorites:
"We must be able to disagree and to consider new ideas and not be afraid."

"Do what you feel in your heart to be right-- for you'll be criticized anyway."

"I have never felt that anything really mattered but knowing that you stood for the things in which you believed and had done the very best you could."

A brave strong woman I want all my students to know!

Monday, November 2, 2009


"Annette Kellerman loved to make waves."

As someone who has been known to "make a wave or two," I knew, the minute I read the first line, that I was absolutely going to love this book. And I did. MERMAID QUEEN: THE SPECTACULAR TRUE STORY OF ANNETTE KELLERMAN, WHO SWAM HER WAY TO FAME, FORTUNE, AND SWIMSUIT HISTORY tells the story of Annette Kellerman, the Australian woman who invented water ballet and maybe more importantly to many of us, the modern woman's swimsuit.

Annette Kellerman was a sickly child whose father taught her to swim to strengthen her legs. Soon Annette was winning races and setting records. In 1903, however, not many women were athletes, and Annette's mother wished she would choose something a little more artistic. Ignoring all criticism, Annette and her father left Australia and traveled to England, where Annette was the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel, then to Paris, and finally to Boston's Revere Beach. There, Annette was arrested and had to appear in court to defend her racy bathing suit! The tone of this book is bold and joyful and dashy and fun. And I don't know whether it was the author or illustrator or picture book designer, but they made some choices about font that I think kids (and their adults!) will find really interesting.

The illustrations, by Edwin Fotheringham, are exuberant and splashy and fun. Each page has kind of a "wavish" background done in blues, or greens, or oranges, with cartoonish-characters kind of super-imposed over the waves. Sometimes there are "mini-illustrations," done in water droplets, super-imposed on top of all that. And then there are a few random comments, e.g. "How sweaty! How rugged!" worked into the illustrations. It's kind of hard to explain, but the illustrations really add to joy and exuberance of this book. Kit lit blog extraordinaire, "Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast" did an interview of Shana Corey, and included several of the illustrations. Check them out here.

A splashy, joyful, strong, fun picture book that I can't wait to share with the strong girls and women in my life!